- Associated Press - Friday, August 5, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The New Mexico Department of Health has such a large backlog of applications for medical marijuana identification cards the state auditor has called it a public health emergency.

The average time for processing a medical marijuana ID card is now 43 days, which is down from the 60-day average in June but still exceeds the 30-day limit set by state law, The Albuquerque Journal reported (http://bit.ly/2b12tX7).

The department is working to process applications for both new patients and those seeking renewals, agency spokesman David Morgan said. “We take our mission to provide safe access to medicine for New Mexico’s qualified medical cannabis patients seriously,” Morgan said.

Patients enrolled in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program have increased rapidly from about 14,000 in 2015 to 26,568 as of June. Current state law requires the Department of Health to approve or deny applications for ID cards within 30 days. Cards expire after one year, so qualified patients must also apply for renewals.

The agency submitted a written update to the interim legislative committee that met Thursday. Some lawmakers criticized the department for not sending any officials.

“It’s obvious the Department of Health is not putting the focus on the patient,” said Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, vice chairwoman of the interim Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee.

Morgan said agency officials plan to attend a separate legislative hearing later this month, and it would have been a challenge to appear before two legislative committees so close together.

Auditor Tim Keller on Thursday called the backlog a health emergency and said it could lead to costly lawsuits. Keller said the Department of Health has been treating the issue as a bureaucratic headache instead of as an emergency.

“It’s been a slow sweeping under the rug of this issue,” he said.

Some lawmakers at the committee suggested pursuing changes to the state’s medical marijuana laws, including the renewal requirement, but Rodriguez said for now that doesn’t matter.

“The law says 30 days - not 43 days,” she said. “To me, that’s a violation of the law.”

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com

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